Arab-Israeli woman shares perspective with Hillel

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Arab-Israeli woman shares perspective with Hillel

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By Guy Ovadia, news correspondent

Lian Najami, the first Arab-Israeli woman to receive a Rhodes scholarship, visited Northeastern Hillel Thursday to discuss her perspective on Israel as an Arab, Muslim woman from Haifa, a city in northern Israel.

As part of the scholarship, Najami will study exclusivity policy, or the ways in which discrimination is legally implemented, at Oxford University. She said the field is important to her because she is a part of four marginalized groups within Israel; in addition to being an Arab Muslim woman, Najami has a rare muscle condition in her legs. A proud citizen of Israel, Najami said her background gives her a unique perspective to advocate for equality in her country.

Doctors are unable to diagnose Najami’s condition, but her disadvantages do not discourage her. She said she was able to accomplish so much because she “didn’t want to play the victim.”

“I’m not here to paint a rose-tinted picture of Israel,” Najami said. “Arabs in Israel, in my opinion, shouldn’t play the victim, and, on the contrary, [they] should actually try to figure out a way for [themselves] to enter and come a bit closer to the decision-making table.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is controversial at Northeastern and college campuses around the world. To many students, Najami’s perspective is a key part of the Israeli-Palestinian narrative because she and other Arab-Israeli people are often caught between the side of Israel and that of its neighbors.

“I think it’s very valuable and crucial for a college campus to hear such a diverse voice,” said Neav Topaz, a first-year international business major. “We need more challenging of our ideas. I think that today, in 2018, just because our college campus tends to think one way doesn’t mean we should be closed off to different perspectives.”

Najami said she was fortunate to have grown up in Haifa, which she said is the “symbol of multiculturalism in Israel” and characterizes the principle of “respect above tolerance.” However, she pointed out that Arabs make up only around 9 percent of Haifa, compared to the rest of Israel, where Arabs make up about 21 percent of the population.

Najami said Arab culture in Israel is jeopardized by systemic discrimination. In the Haifa school system, for instance, she said there is only one public Arabic-speaking high school and nine private Arabic-speaking high schools. She said this makes it financially difficult for many Arabs to attend school in their own language.

“That tells me that, in the public sector, the supply doesn’t answer the demand,” Najami said. “When you go to the Hebrew-speaking schools, there is one that is private, one that is semi-private and you have about 14 public schools.”

Additionally, Najami said many Arab students in Greater Haifa have a longer and more expensive commute than Israeli students.

Najami is a critic of the  Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, or BDS, an organization that protests some institutions associated with the Israeli government and military. Najami said she is particularly opposed to BDS’ boycott of academic institutions operating in Israel.

“Coming to the U.S. and hearing about the BDS movement — it is quite saddening,” Najami said. “Diversity in the higher education is an intellectual property and should be treated as such, and nothing else. So any campus who decides to come and boycott an academic institution in Israel because they are in Israel — now that, to me, is nonsense.”

Najami believes her experiences in unmediated conversations with diverse groups of people in academia helped her to challenge other people’s beliefs as well as her own. She said universities should uphold knowledge as sacred and should not politicize their institutions through movements like BDS.

However, Najami said she is on the fence about the BDS boycott of Israeli products and services.

“On one hand, it is a form of nonviolent resistance, and that is completely legit,” she said. “The vision behind it doesn’t match what they are actually doing. Their vision, if you go to [the BDS] website and try to understand who they are and what they do, they say ‘We are there to help the Arabs in occupied Palestine.’”

She said she believes BDS damages the livelihoods of Palestinian people because boycott movements do not only affect Israelis, but everyone who works in Israel, including roughly 120,000 Palestinians.

Northeastern University Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, is currently campaigning to implement a campus-wide ban of products from Hewlett-Packard, or HP. On its website, BDS alleges that HP “plays a key role in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.” A pro-Israel group on campus, Huskies for Israel, responded to SJP’s campaign by creating a petition opposing the proposed HP ban.

Najami said she tries to foster a better understanding of day-to-day life and conflict in Israel. She also offered a perspective on the identity of non-Jewish Israelis and the politics behind such identities, which some students, like Aviv Liani, found to be insightful.

“I think just the way she focused on facts I really liked,” said Liani, a first-year undeclared student. “With every argument, she would just take a step back and say ‘Well, doesn’t really matter what you think, because this is the reality’ and I really liked that because I feel a lot of times people get lost in their own opinion.”

Najami said in Arab culture, the word Zionist is considered an insult, and while many Israelis are proud to identify as such, Najami does not consider herself a Zionist because she does not identify with the movement. She said in the Arab world, the word carries as many negative connotations as the word “racist” does in the West.

Najami considers herself Israeli, but she also doesn’t want people to assume she is Jewish just because of her nationality.

“I hope one day I can call myself ‘Israeli’ and be happy with it without having to clarify,” Najami said.

Najami agrees that Israel is a safe haven for Jews after the atrocities of the Holocaust. She said she will gladly respect the national anthem and the flag of Israel, which both have Jewish symbolism, but she believes Israel must be an inclusive society that is not just for Jews.

“There is no ‘other,’” she said, “There is ‘us’ more than there is ‘other.’”